This weekend’s stakes action will be as much about earnings as the performances of the horses competing. Because of the wide-open nature of this year’s 3-year-old picture, in which multiple stakes victories have been a rarity, it is going to take more than the normal amount of earnings to make the starting field. Very few horses have dropped off the trail, and we’re going to need some serious performances over the next two weeks to prevent this year’s Derby from becoming nothing more than a guessing game – a hodgepodge of fractured form.
For example, the top 20 graded stakes earners who are targeting the Derby have won a grand total of 14 stakes this year, and the only two who have won more than one stakes – Conveyance and Sidney's Candy – are front-running speedballs.
Several of the top-name 3-year-olds competing over the next two weeks, such as Eskendereya, Super Saver , Caracortado, Alphie's Bet, Jackson Bend, Schoolyard Dreams, American Lion , Backtalk, Uptowncharlybrown , and Dave in Dixie, aren’t even guaranteed a spot in the Derby field and must run big to earn their way in. Of the 20 horses who have enough earnings as of now to get in the field, 11 have lost their last start and 10 of them are only in because of graded money earned last year. Yes, it is time to change the out-dated graded earnings format.
Right now, it is going to take $180,000 to make the field. Eskendereya, who is ranked No. 1 on many Derby lists, has $150,000. Four accomplished horses – Florida Derby (gr. I) runner-up Pleasant Prince, El Camino Real (gr. III) Derby winner Connemara, Risen Star (gr. III) runner-up Tempted to Tapit, and Louisiana Derby (gr. II) third-place finisher Drosselmeyer, all do not have sufficient earnings and are not scheduled to race again before the Derby. WinStar Farm now has to seriously consider the Coolmore Lexington Stakes (gr. II), two weeks before the Derby, for Drosselmeyer if they are to have any hope of him making it. Other quality stakes performers like Stay Put, Ron the Greek, Northern Giant, and Lentenor are all in the same boat.
Also to be considered in regard to this weekend’s stakes is the possible emergence of another Endorsement or Dean's Kitten to complicate matters even more. And there are several horses competing who, like those two, are swimming well under surface, but could make a sudden leap into prominence.
Two such horses are in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I), and although they will be lightly regarded and have proven to be significantly slower than the top contenders, they both at least bear watching.
Posse Power, a steadily improving son of Posse, had a nightmare stretch run in the El Camino Real Derby (gr. III), getting blocked on a couple of occasions and having to check and alter course dramatically. He still had a chance inside the eighth pole, but was sawed off by the winner at a crucial point. He still kicked in when finally clear to finish a rallying third, beaten 2 1/4 lengths. His Beyer Speed Figures, while still on the low side (add several points on synthetic), have increased with every start, and he has yet to finish worse than third in six career starts. His sire was a seven-furlong specialist at best, but his broodmare sire is Pleasant Colony, one of the leading class and stamina influences in America, and his first three dams were all major stakes horses in the U.S. Canada, England, and France.
Another horse who could be ready to bust out is Setsuko, based on his last three races, in which blinkers were added. He was impressive breaking his maiden at Hollywood Park, and in his next start on grass, he showed several things that suggest good things to come. Turning for home after laying back in fifth behind a dawdling pace, he could have fanned wide for his run, as most horses coming from off the pace do on the grass. But he cut the corner with great agility and sat right behind the horse in front of him. It took him a while to find his best stride, as his action was high and he was almost leaping off the turf. But around the sixteenth pole, you could see him lower his shoulder and level off, and when he did he kicked into another gear, reaching out with long, powerful strides to get up for second, beaten a half-length, while coming home his final eighth in about :11 2/5.
In the Sham Stakes (gr. III), he closed steadily into fast closing fractions to finish second to Alphie’s Bet. It’s going to take a major surge forward to be competitive with this bunch, but he does have substantial room for improvement. The opinion here is that he should have made his final Derby prep in a race like the Illinois Derby (gr. II), as fellow Californians American Lion and Dave in Dixie are doing, because he is bred to be a dirt horse, especially through his maternal grandsire Pleasant Colony. He seems like a good enough horse on synthetic, but has the potential to be much better on dirt. As for the Santa Anita Derby, don’t ignore his last two works, both bullets, in 1:12 flat and :46 2/5.
Speaking of the Illinois Derby, it is interesting to note that Turf Melody is making his 10th career start…at 10 different racetracks. Those 10 tracks are in eight different states, and Canada. He is coming off a bullet work around the dogs at Fair Hill after finishing a solid fourth in the Gotham (gr. III), in which he came from 10th, and he could run better than most people expect at a huge price.